Deconstructing the English in York

Trying to get to grips with the historical, social and psychological construction of any sort of identity is difficult enough: almost impossible in the case of that slippery customer ‘Englishness’. Nick Smith set us neatly on our way on 30 September at the Golden Ball with a useful tripartite approach. This was the second of the joint meetings with ‘York Social Ideas’ led by York Alternative History.

After a short survey of the way in which the EDL tries to construct their idea of what constitutes being English by referencing back to some strange misreading of events in the early medieval period, Nick went on to deconstruct the wider concept of identity formation. The main content of his talk was an explanation of how a version of what constitutes ‘English’ was created as part of moves by the rulers of Wessex to assert hegemony over the vast variety of different groups that then inhabited what became eventually defined geographically as England. It was created in cultural opposition to what was considered foreign and had to be fought or held at bay: the Welsh, the Vikings, and so on. No mean feat to go through all this in less than half an hour.

There followed a long and wide-ranging discussion lasting the best part of an hour, though in the nature of things it was hard to come to any other conclusion than that the whole idea of any ‘nationality’ continues to be elusive the closer you look. It seems to have to do with a felt need to assert difference, which may or may not be inclusive or exclusive or perfectly neutral, depending on the social and psychological factors behind the ‘need’. The role of the State and its ruling class has, historically, been a great deal more important in hardening the edges of national identities than any presumed cultural or linguistic factors. In the creation of these identities there seems to be a complex interaction between generally benign cultural differentials and the activities of specific interest groups (political, commercial, psychotic) seeking to use these for some other purpose.

Well done Nick for such a good introduction to the subject and well done to those who came along for their often profound contributions to the discussion. A very civilised, entertaining and illuminating evening!

Watch out for other York Social events on their website and keep track of York Alternative History’s ongoing efforts, as well as out next foray with York Social in about three months’ time.

Next YAH Open Meeting

There will be no open meeting during August. The next one is scheduled for Wednesday 25 September, so pencil it in your diaries and watch out for the notice.

Meanwhile, various things are being organised. On Monday, 30 September at the Golden Ball from 7.30 there will be the next joint meeting organised by York Alternative History and York Social. Nick Smith will be leading a discussion on ‘A History of Englishness’. It will look at how and why England was created as a kingdom/country; the political motivation, spin, propaganda and creation myths that established England and what it means to be English. He will link this to how nationalist groups use these ideas from the early Middle Ages. If you have been watching the recent series on TV about ‘King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons’, this will be a fascinating alternative view.

On 17 October, there will be an Anti-Slavery Film Evening. Put that date in your diary and watch out for more information.

Some time in the autumn, there will be a new initiative that will get us out into the public domain in a high profile way. We will be involved in a project that will critically engage the public in thinking about York and how ‘Heritage’ affects the city and its people. Watch this space for further announcements. This will give us the chance to challenge the ‘authorised heritage discourse’.

Two big things for autumn 2014. We are helping out with events to do with the commemorations of the ‘Great War’ that was supposed to end all wars and in fact laid the foundations for most of the ones ever since. On our own efforts we will also be doing something similar to only different from our Luddite event last January: we will be looking at the way Guy Fawkes has been characterised through ‘heritage’ and used by the activist movements in recent years.

2012 And All That: the long view

This blog post follows on from Martin’s earlier piece entitled ‘2012 And All That!’  That post questioned why the City of York Council were making such a big deal out of an inconsequential medieval charter and, in particular, why they were linking it with freedom, democracy and self-government.  I am going to provide more of a long view of York’s past and development as a town to show how the council are effectively rewriting history.  They are doing so in a way which has implications for how concepts such as self-government and democracy are understood by erasing the ‘ordinary’ people of the city from its history.


Most people living in York have a vague understanding of its development from Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Viking, medieval periods and so on.  How can we not when we live and work with remnants of this history all around us and a strong tourist economy built on the story of this past.  I would argue that this makes the council’s year-long celebration ignorant and even patronising by calling 1212 the year when York became a self-governing city[1].  If that statement were true then we need to ask who governed the earlier settlements of York since Roman Eboracum was established in c.AD71.  (Note: there is earlier evidence of habitation in the York area going back to the Mesolithic; however for the purposes of this piece I am going to start in the Roman period as this is when the past settlements of York can realistically start to be referred to as a city).


Eboracum was established as a Roman fortress and became the permanent base of the IX and, later, VI Legions.  As with many similar settlements across the Roman Empire a civil town developed alongside the fortress.  Eboracum was a very important place; not only was it one of only three permanent legionary fortresses in Britannia but it hosted several Roman Emperors at a time when the Empire would have been ruled from whichever place the Emperor happen to be.  This put York at the centre of Roman politics on several occasions, most notably with the controversial proclamation of Constantine I as Emperor in 306.  Not only did Eboracum become the capital of northern Britain (Britannia Inferior) but around 3rd century it was made a colonia, the highest legal status a city in the Roman Empire could attain.  By this time it was as, if not more, self-governing as the 1212 charter made medieval York.  It was ruled by a council made up of wealthy locals such as merchants and veteran soldiers.


With the withdrawal of centralised Roman administration and military force from 410 Eboracum ceased to exist in its previous the form and function.  As with the rest of what was Roman Britain the way society was organised went through a period of change, away from urban centres of power to a myriad of often self-sufficient smaller settlements alongside local leaders competing for power.  The end of the Roman Empire enabled much movement of people across Europe as new opportunities (for trade, land ownership, power etc.) became available and were exploited.  It is into this context that the Anglo-Saxon cultures developed in what was to become England.  By c.600 there is evidence of the development of an Anglo-Saxon trading centre (wic) at York, known as Eorforwic.  There were several wics such as Eorforwic all over North-West Europe around the same time; all seem to have been important central trading centres in contact with each other and under substantial, if not outright, royal control.  The power struggles which characterised the immediate post-Roman period in had led to the development of competing kingdoms.  By the 7th century the most powerful of these included Wessex, East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria.  Eorforwic became a cultural centre and the capital of the Northumbrian sub-kingdom, Deira.  As such, it would have been controlled by a continually fluctuating combination of the Northumbrian kings, their lords and, with the conversion to Christianity, the church.  Although power was autocratic and most likely semi-feudal, it was not fixed and was subject to a culture of honour, indebtedness, political marriages, pledges, allegiances and oaths.  This permeated all the way through society from slaves to kings.  This is the context in which York became subject to Viking rule and in many ways Jorvik continued to be governed in much the same way as Eorforwic had been, through a combination of competing interests – ultimate power belonging to whichever king sat on the throne of what had become the Kingdom of Jorvik (this was essentially Northumbria but under Scandinavian rulers).


With the formation of England under the Wessex kings and their defeat of the last king of Jorvik, Eric Bloodaxe, York was controlled by newly established Earl of York.  Both Nordic and Anglo-Saxon men were granted this title and ultimately answered to the king of England.  However, the king had to contend with the continual power struggles between his lords, the church and other elite individuals (such as landowning and/or very successful merchants/traders) in taking decisions that would affect York.  The 1066 Norman invasion of England led William the Conqueror to consolidate his power by making sure all his lords were loyal to him.  In order to achieve this he replaced many of the Anglo-Norse lords with Norman ones.  York is often cited as a centre of a northern uprising against King William I, however society at this time had become very structured and it is unlikely that peasants and other lower status people would have had reason to rebel against a new ruler – not much would change for them, just the individual that they were indebted to would speak an early form of French rather than an Anglo-Norse dialect (this isn’t to say that the language issue isn’t important – they are more likely to fight for someone who spoke in a similar way to them, however the poorer sections of society would not have seen much change in their daily lives whether they were ruled by a Norman or Anglo-Norse lord).  The rebellion is more likely to have been instigated by the Anglo-Norse lords who would have called on their subjects to fight for them.  Historical sources report that William I “laid waste” to the York and the lands around it, however there is little to no archaeological evidence to suggest that this meant mass destruction.  Again, this is elite fighting elite for control of land and although other people may have been caught up in it the outcome would not have made much difference to their life, or given them any more control over the governance of York.


York in the medieval period was controlled on behalf of the king by the sheriff.  He would have also had to contend with powerful people such as local lords, the church and an increasingly wealthy merchant class.  As the traders and merchants grew wealthier they formed guilds (much like a combination of cartels and lobbying groups) that had more and more control over York.  It is in this context that we need to understand the charter of 1212 (see ‘2012 And All That!’).  This was King John attempting to both raise more money and give the power that had previously been held by the earls and sheriffs of York over to the newer mercantile elite.  In short, he was consolidating his power and seeing off a potential elite rebellion like that which William I had faced.


To conclude, the charter of 1212 which the City of York Council are holding up as a beacon of freedom, democracy and self-governance was nothing more than another way of transferring power over York from one elite to another.  York, like any other city, had been controlled by the elite of society up to that point and would continue to be so for a long time after.  To say otherwise is rewriting history or, in other words, outright lying.  It does a disservice to all the people who campaigned to have control over their own lives and the places in which they lived (and still live) in.

Further Reading: